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Semiotics' Wild Variety

David Rothenberg (and friend).
David Rothenberg (and friend). Source: Photo: ERR

We already knew semiotics as a science focuses on the study of signs and symbols in communication. But few would imagine to broaden the field to include the vast world of animals. The University of Tartu did just that the first week in April.

The person entrusted to close the international conference “Zoosemiotics and Animal Representations” was the American professor and experimental musician David Rothenberg. Well known for his attempts to explore and record the songs of birds and whales, Rothenberg’s presentation elaborated on the dialectics between music and language. 

From his own studies, Rothenberg questioned the audience about the function and aesthetic of a nightingale- and humpback whale song. He reached the conclusion that the songs were closer to the field of music than the field of communications. The reasoning? If they were only defending their territory or attracting mates, why would they sing, as they do, for hours on end with whole series of different patterns? Rothenberg concluded that some animals' songs are indeed “real music scores.”

But the musical approach was not the only show in town. “The conference was very refreshing and very rich in multiple areas”, said the Tallinn Zoo's ethologist and zoologist Aleksei Turovski, who spoke about charisma as the leading trait vertebrates use to select their community leaders.

Another example of the range in zoosemiotics was shown by Greek anthropologist Christos Lynteris. In a half-historical, half-humanistic portrait, Lynteris talked about the role of marmots in the pneumonic plague which affected Manchuria from 1910 to 1911. According to the anthropologist, the marmots not only spread the plague but they implemented a political body which would be used in the future “to abolish the current regime for causing that amount of worthlessness and pestilence.”

Moving from governmental issues to more playful ones, one speaker investigated why both human and non-human animals like to play. Arlene Tucker, a Master’s student at the University of Tartu, wondered what might be learned from animals' fun and entertainment. Based on observing animals, Tucker has developed a series of games for humans. One game is played with two jackets sewn back to back. Children slip into the jackets and use each other’s weight to stand. The idea, said Tucker, is to use everyday objects to change your frame of mind.


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